Natural killer (NK) cells contribute to the first line of defense against viruses and to the control of tumor growth and metastasis spread. The discovery of HLA class I specific inhibitory receptors, primarily of killer Ig-like receptors (KIRs), and of activating receptors has been fundamental to unravel NK cell function and the molecular mechanisms of tumor cell killing. Stemmed from the seminal discoveries in early '90s, in which Alessandro Moretta was the major actor, an extraordinary amount of research on KIR specificity, genetics, polymorphism, and repertoire has followed. These basic notions on NK cells and their receptors have been successfully translated to clinical applications, primarily to the haploidentical hematopoietic stem cell transplantation to cure otherwise fatal leukemia in patients with no HLA compatible donors. The finding that NK cells may express the PD-1 inhibitory checkpoint, particularly in cancer patients, may allow understanding how anti-PD-1 therapy could function also in case of HLA class Ineg tumors, usually susceptible to NK-mediated killing. This, together with the synergy of therapeutic anti-checkpoint monoclonal antibodies, including those directed against NKG2A or KIRs, emerging in recent or ongoing studies, opened new solid perspectives in cancer therapy.
Keywords: HLA class I; KIR ligands; NK alloreactivity; NK cell education; inhibitory checkpoints; killer immunoglobulin-like receptors; polymorphism.